Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Intellectuals and Science

Nicholas Kristof writes in a New York Times op-ed column The Hubris of the Humanities (paid subscription required) that the lack of appreciation for science comes not only from the masses but even from the intellectual elite.
The problem isn't just inadequate science (and math) teaching in the schools, however. A larger problem is the arrogance of the liberal arts, the cultural snootiness of, of … well, of people like me – and probably you.

What do I mean by that? In the U.S. and most of the Western world, it's considered barbaric in educated circles to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares. A century ago, Einstein published his first paper on relativity – making 1905 as important a milestone for world history as 1066 or 1789 – but relativity has yet to filter into the consciousness of otherwise educated people.

Most of the intellectuals I know are well-versed in the sciences but that is the company I keep. But we do expect the well-learned computer scientist to have read their Shakespeare and we don't expect English professors to know diddly about NP-completeness (or calculus for that matter).

After giving the usual statistics like 40% of Americans don't believe in evolution Kristof ends with the following.

But there's an even larger challenge than anti-intellectualism. And that's the skewed intellectualism of those who believe that a person can become sophisticated on a diet of poetry, philosophy and history, unleavened by statistics or chromosomes. That's the hubris of the humanities.


  1. Of course the humanities are superior. As Schopenhauer said, "Science can get by with talent but art requires genius".

    Here's an article published in the Times that conclusively proves that Cervantes' Don Quixote is a more important work than all of Einstein's theories put together.

  2. "Of course the humanities are superior. As Schopenhauer said, "Science can get by with talent but art requires genius"."

    You are construing what Schopenhauer said in a wrong way. The citation only speaks about the *cognitive-psychological merits of those dealing with arts*, but not with the products of art themselves. That is, ontologically art does not need to be "superior" in any way to scientific knowledge.

    Moreover, the concept of "superiority" has no clear meaning in your claim. Do you mean moral superiority, superiority in truth-revealing, aesthetic superiority?

  3. Of course intellectuals are anti-science. The puporsedly obscure ramblings of, say, Kierkegard wouldn't last a minute in front a scientific panel. It would be rejected with the following comments to the author:

    Please explicitly state what are your claims, followed by itemized evidence be it statistical, theoretical, or experimental for your claims.

    Instead, here's what they write:

    Money matters, of course. But what is money? According to Levin there is hard money and soft money�and the latter, which includes motion pictures and other forms of advertising is, he attested, a medium of exchange preferable to cash. If readings in the history of the global operations of multinationals and of the merger mania of media conglomerates in the late decades of the twentieth century teach us anything it is that to charge that reasoning is circular does not disconfirm aggressive arguments for investment or merger or diversification or takeover that are backed by sufficient political, cultural, or financial capital. Scenario thinking worked for Shell and Time Warner as it had worked for the National Security Council because it was devised to absorb all contingencies into a feedback loop. In the case of AOL and Time Warner, the initial affiliation of the companies involved a deal in which AOL agreed to advertise a Time Warner film that advertised AOL and suggested a possible merger. That promotion raised AOL's market value by inducing stock purchases based on the belief that the stock would ascend to a new level due to others' purchases made in the belief that the stock would ascend to a new level. And that bubblicious increase in stock value created AOL as a customer for the purchase of Time Warner, which was acquired when, in payment for an utterly illusory share of power in the merged company ("See, our name comes first!"), AOL returned to Time Warner shareholders an incommensurate portion of the value that You've Got Mail had created. That value, the very concept of value, promulgated by Case and Levin was, it turned out equally illusory. 20 Three years later, after all the machinations and promotions, stock rising and stock falling, Levin is gone, and Case as good as gone. It turns out that the only thing of value associated with You've Got Mail that persists is The Shop around the Corner--not the store owned by Kathleen Kelly but the film made by Ernst Lubitsch, who had the good fortune to work for Paramount in the thirties, not Warner Bros. in the nineties.

    I think Sagan was first to point out the disparity between the social acceptability of ignorance in math vs the humanities. IIRC in "The Daemon Haunted World" he writes that the following conversation is socially acceptable:

    - What do you do?
    - I'm a mathematician
    - Gee, I was never any good at math, I barely learned the multiplication table.

    Could you imagine--he asks--a similar conversation around english:

    - What do you do?
    - I'm an English lit professor
    - Gee, I was never any good at English, I barely learned the alphabet.

  4. Most disturbing to me is the anti-science conservative movement, which calls climate change "junk science." The libertarians even go so far as to say that second-hand smoke has no dangers at all. (And it was Ayn Rand who doubted both relativity and quantum mechanics.)

    Just watch and see how often the term "junk" gets applied to legitimate research.

  5. The article mentioned by Lance
    brings back memories of the classic
    booklet "The Two Cultures" by C.P. Snow (reprinted by CUP in their Canto
    series). It is a book that I enjoyed
    reading, despite its shortcomings.

    Maybe some readers of this blog might wish to look at this article
    for a discussion of that text
    and of C.P. Snow's work at large.

  6. "Most disturbing to me is the anti-science conservative movement"

    Never heard of this movement. It's probably a minor and non-influential group of people. The current most dominant anti-science movement seems to me to come from the other side of the political spectrum.

  7. I don't know what are quarks and chi-squares (although I have a suspicion that chi-square is a statistical term that I would know by another name). I also haven't read any of Shakespeare's plays.

    Normally, I think that even if I did know that (not to mention know more about Shakespeare or Schopenhauer or read Don Quixote) it would not help me become a better computer scientist. Yet, I strongly feel that everybody, whether they are physicists, statisticians, writers, or philosophers, should know about NP completeness, and it would help them to become better in what they're doing. It may be the case that I'm right that it would help them, but it would also help me (maybe just by inspiration) if I was more knowledgable in all the other fields of human endeavors.

    Unfortunately, in general there is not a lot of respect and interest in learning across different fields, even within the sciences. If something is hard to understand, it's always nicer to think that it's also not important anyway. I've also observed that people often very easily jump to the conclusion that whole fields, whether they be applied CS, cobinatorics, English, biology, psychology, ... are comprised of idiots that do not know what they're doing.

  8. Seems like a good opportunity to relay an anecdote: Long ago I participated in a discussion with a room full of humanities students (all officially clever, belonging to an excellence program), and tried in vain to explain a pet theory that human society settles on local optimums rather than global ones. My views were not even rejected, because my discussion partners did not seem to notice a content in the above claim.

    So - many if not most practitioners of humanities deem the methods of mathematics (and other exact sciences) to be irrelevent to their discipline. But are they indeed?

  9. "Science can get by with talent but art requires genius"

    This is complete nonsense. Science (and mathematics/TCS in particular) are things of beauty, and to understand and explain beauty, you have to be a genius.

    Drawing abstract paintings, or writing novels does not make one a genius. Explaining beauty, the way Einstein, Turing and Godel did, requires genius.

  10. I once had a collegue from the visual arts department refer to computer science researchers as not being creative.

    They seriously thought that all we did was plug values into equations all day or something. It's just like when people say "math" when they really mean "arithmetic": "Oh, he's really good at math." "Really? Can he help me with this proof?" "No, but he can multiply numbers in his head!"

  11. IIRC there were some people who called themselves "intellectuals" but not in the scientific sense. They were referring to literature, etc. I feel that they should consider themselves "retards" until they study a little math and perhaps some physics.

  12. I agree with Krystof and he presentation of his column in the
    NYT is valuable. However, a lot of the comments posted here are just 'preaching to the choir'.

    The question is what are we going to do about it? What subject matter are we going to provide? An interest in seeming intellectual (or a genuine hope to get something worthwhile out of it) got a lot of people to buy 'A Brief History of Time'. Maybe it was the wrong place to start? Cosmology and the history of science sell books, but maybe there are other topics that are more effective than these at developing a broad appreciation of mathematical or scientific ideas in their readers?

    We have precious little on offer from the CS theory side for the interested reader from the humanities. (Moreover, one of the few things claiming to represent us, 'The Advent of Algorithm' by Berlinski, is almost worse than nothing.)

  13. It seems to me TCS has at leat one VERY interesting thing to offer. In philosophy, it seems people have really been stuned by what is now (I think) called strong determinism. It raised profound questions like: do we, humans, have free-will, or do we just follow the "rules" of physics, etc... Well, determinism, it seems to me, should be entirely revisited in terms of computability. Here is an article in that direction: http://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/9412004

  14. "You are construing what Schopenhauer said in a wrong way. The citation only speaks about the *cognitive-psychological merits of those dealing with arts*, but not with the products of art"

    I think not -- I stand by my interpretation of Schopenhauer but this is hardly the forum to argue about the views of a second rate philosopher :)

    The point is that Schopenhauer's views coincide with the popular perception of science -- that it is a product of reason alone and that the role of imagination is minimal. For some reason, the chattering classes find this view of science quite appealing.

  15. We might get intellectuals from other fields to be interested in TCS, if we are also willing to listen and learn from others. Terms such as "retards" or "chaterring classes" don't seem to be productive for discussion.

    Arguments on what is more important science or art are also rather pointless, I believe. Both are different and elevate the human spirit in their own ways.

  16. While I was in high school and college as a math/science major, I generally looked down on my fellow students in the humanities. I liked the humanities courses I took, but I found most of them to be fairly easy, without requiring much intellectual rigor, whereas the science and math courses were challenging and deep. Good grades were much harder to come by in the sciences--something my friends in the humanities also readily acknowledged.

    Perhaps it is because I grew up in post-Sputnik America--where there was a real push to improve science education--that I was never exposed to the view of science being somehow a somehow inferior intellectual pursuit. This view was, and still is, foreign to me.

    I appreciate great art and literature, and the inspired geniuses that created it. They have enriched my life immensely. I only wish more of those on "the other side" understood and appreciated the beauty and genius involved in great science, beyond its obvious utilitarian value. I think their lives would be enriched as well.

  17. In general, it's easier to appreciate art and literature than it is to appreciate science. Certainly art/literature/music can require a significant investment to get the full effect of a piece, but often these forms have an immediate visceral impact as well that is difficult for science/mathematics to achieve.

    That's also why humanities classes probably seem easier: Creating great art can require as much talent, style, and dedication as creating great mathematics, but understanding the former may be significantly easier, at least at an initial level.

    I have a friend who is a brilliant artist, but she struggles to make money selling t-shirts and designing web pages. On the other hand, the government paid my way through college and graduate school, and now pays my salary.

  18. "While I was in high school and college as a math/science major, I generally looked down on my fellow students in the humanities. I liked the humanities courses I took, but I found most of them to be fairly easy, without requiring much intellectual rigor, whereas the science and math courses were challenging and deep."

    I find this very interesting - my experience was exactly the opposite. As a high school student, I found chemistry and physics very simple: read the book, find the proper equation, and plug in the numbers. I was very good at math (or, "arithmetic" as someone else pointed out) and found the humanities to be much more challenging: so much more room for individual insight, creativity, and thinking outside the box.

    Imagine my surprise to ultimately discover that the "equation stuffing" disciplines like math and physics actually afford even greater challenges to the creative and insightful, and that the humanities are somewhat infertile in comparison: without a clear definition of the box, 'insight' and creativity is made artificially easy.

  19. Scott, ever heard of sarcasm?

  20. I'm with you Scott, I thought "seesh, they just haven't been trolling around the right libertarian web-sites, like TechCentralStation." I must say I was a little glad that it was sarcasm after all.

  21. Perhaps why those artists who don't appreciate the beauty of science and mathematics lack the intellect to do so. After all, it does not take much intellect to draw random paintings or write random novels, does it?

    Not to sound cliche, but just as people say that any discipline with science in it is not really a science, I think that people who call themselves "creative" are the ones who actually lack creativity.

  22. After all, it does not take much intellect to draw random paintings or write random novels, does it?

    If you just want to draw random lines or choose random words, may be. But it really takes a lot of creativity to come up with good works of art. Leave apart trying it, I'm dead sure you never even knew or met an artist in life. I have seen people do art and I have seen people do science. I haven seen them spend nights thinking about their paitings and I have them spend nights thinking about their proofs. Niether is easy. One might be a little easier to appreciate than the other but that's a different story and I'm not sure about that too.

  23. Back to an issue that was raised earlier in the thread:

    There is most certainly a political effort to politicize and discredit science and scientists in the United States.

    Most, but not all, comes from the political right, looking to discredit evolution, global warming, environmental science, etc. The anti-science efforts from the left are usually anti-technology (as opposed to anti-science, per se) environmentalist types who have very little impact in the USA, who campaign against the use of genetically engineered foods and such.

    A particularly noxious example of the former is the recently published "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science" by journalist Tom Bethell. Bethell's thesis is that scientists form a high-priesthood that is dependent on the government teat, secretive and hostile to criticism, and activist towards a goal of foisting atheism and "big government" on the populace. That he makes a big stink going after evolution, global warming and the government funding of scientific research should surprise no one.

    The scientific community should know that these people are out there, and know that we cannot simply ignore them, believing that they will embarrass themselves and disappear.

    While you are grading papers and getting ready for the next confernece deadline, people like Bothell will be on the drive-time AM radio chatshows, or perhaps getting soft-ball interviews on Fox News. Each time his claims go unrebutted, the public will incrementally turn against science.

  24. "Except that they happen to be running the US right now."

    Sorry guys, it was NOT sarcasm in my previous post. I am not an expert on US politics (and I do not know of any anti-science conservative movement in the US. I never acknowledged that there are anti-science sentiments in Neo-Conservative ideology).

    Nevertheless, in Eurpoe, the current trend of discrediting science comes from Postmodernism (which is far away from being "conservative") (e.g., Derrida, Foucault, etc.)

  25. A common sentiment of those insisting on elevating art above science goes somewhat as follows: Scientists, while quite clever, cannot rise to the level of genius because their work merely "follows the rules" and they themselves are fungible with regard to their results. ("If Einstein never existed, someone else inevitably would have discovered relativity in short order," etc.) On the other hand, great artists are geniuses because their work (being so creative) is unique and could not be duplicated--or even approximated--by others ("If Mozart did not exist, no one could take his place and Western culture would be all the poorer for it.")

    Schopenhauer was mentioned earlier as believing this. Kant also espoused this view, and it certainly has wide currency in intellectual circles.

    Besides being rather silly, IMHO (the "if X never existed ..." part is completely untestable), this opinion reveals a general lack of understanding or appreciation of science and math on the part of those who hold it. Both artists and scientists need creativity and rule-following to do their jobs well.

    There are two reasons that may explain why so many people hold the view above: (1) as previous comments have mentioned, science and math are often (but not always) much more difficult to appreciate by large numbers of people, since they require specialized knowledge and training, and (2) most scientists are not interested in pushing a contrary (or at least more balanced) view, thereby leaving the discussion (and bias) to those who thrive on talking about these things, i.e., those in the humanities.

    The only remedy I see is for scientists to engage in this discussion more than they do.

  26. The Stanford undergraduate terms for the two sides are "techie" and "fuzzy." (at least that's what I was told a few years ago.) While I find these terms annoying, at least they're equal-opportunity deprecation.